Three speeches that shook the world

The art of public speaking is something that can be honed and improved upon but at the core it is something that only very few people are blessed with as a natural talent.

The ability to rouse emotions in others by the use of words or to transmit information in an entertaining and enlightening way is something that can have an effect on an individual’s life in a defining way. At the pinnacle of its importance, an important speech given at the right time can be something that frames an event or era in history.

The Gettysburg Address and the abdication of Edward VIII are two examples, but more recent times have equally heavyweight examples:

1. Dr Martin Luther King – “I have a dream”

The civil rights issues in the United States in the mid-20th century is a strong example of where the power of oratory both lit the fires of change whilst helping to make the upheavals far more peaceful than historically important revolutionary movements often are. 

Activist Martin Luther King Jr made this famous speech on Wednesday August 28th 1963 as a rallying cry for an end to racism in the U.S. The speech was delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where over 250,000 civil rights supporters took to the streets and became the defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement.

Drawing on all his powers of public speaking and opening with a reference to the Emancipation Proclamation which freed millions of slaves in 1863, the statement that “one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free” is a stark summation of the state of race relations in the U.S. at the time.

King departed from the prepared script when Mahalia Jackson cried out “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

2. Winston Churchill – “We shall fight on the beaches”

The iconic British Prime Minister is known for his great oratory skills and in this speech drew on his reputation as a great speaker to address not only the assembled politicians but also the whole nation in the aftermath of possibly the biggest defeat in British military history.

The speech was delivered to the House of Commons on June 4 1940 and is widely recognised as the start of the British stand against the seemingly unstoppable march of Nazism across Europe. By rousing the spirit of defiance, Churchill fuelled British defiance as the nation stood alone against a seemingly invincible enemy for a number of years.

Churchill’s declaration inspired a generation to take up arms and fight the good fight and reading it today, the same feelings of heroism and bravery are still generated.

“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

3. Nelson Mandela – “An ideal for which I am prepared to die”

Now acknowledged as a leading world figure who helped stop South Africa’s transition from the racist apartheid system becoming a blood bath for both sides, Nelson Mandela was once seen as a terrorist and faced a trail that would lead to his long term imprisonment.

This statement was made from the dock at the Supreme Court of South Africa in Pretoria on April 20, 1964 at the opening of his trial for acts of sabotage. Reading over it today, the sheer intensity of emotion can still be felt.

“At the outset, I want to say that the suggestion made by the state in its opening that the struggle in South Africa is under the influence of foreigners or communists is wholly incorrect […] I have done whatever I did, both as an individual and as a leader of my people, because of my experience in South Africa and my own proudly felt African background and not because of what any outsider might have said.”

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  1. Chloe says:

    Is that true about MLK Jn. doing the whole I Have a Dream thing because of somebody interrupting his planned speech?! Crazy.

  2. Derek says:

    That's what they tell me.

    Of course, much of life is serendipitous – a plan will only take you so far!

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